Sébastien Japrisot Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sébastien Japrisot 1931–

(Born Jean Baptiste Rossi) French novelist, screenwriter, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Japrisot's career through 1991.

Japrisot is recognized as a master of the mystery novel. His stories feature likable protagonists caught up in increasingly complicated predicaments that are often resolved in strikingly simple ways. Acclaimed for their literary style and thematic richness, several of Japrisot's novels have also been adapted for the screen.

Biographical Information

Born Jean Baptiste Rossi, Japrisot achieved literary acclaim in France with his French translation of J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories (1953). Writing Les mal partis (1950; Awakening) and all of his subsequent novels under the pseudonym Sébastien Japrisot—an anagrammatic rendering of his given name—he eventually adapted several of his novels for the screen and wrote screenplays for such noted directors as Constantin Costa-Gavras, René Clement, and Anatole Litvak. Winner of the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière for Piège pour Cendrillon (1962; Trap for Cinderella) and the 1966 Prix d'Honneur for La dame dans l'auto avec des lunettes et un fusil (1966; The Lady in a Car with Glasses and a Gun), Japrisot continues to live and write in France.

Major Works

Japrisot's novels often use complex plots to create intrigue and suspense. In Trap for Cinderella, for example, two young women are burned in a fire. One of them survives but has amnesia and is disfigured beyond recognition. The woman's identity becomes the novel's main mystery: she is either a flamboyant heiress or the heiress's sister, the murderess who set the fire. Beginning with the murder of a young woman in a train, Compartiment tueurs (1963; The 10:30 from Marseilles) reveals, through a series of flashbacks, information about the lives of the main characters as the police attempt to solve the crime. After various suspects are killed off, a small child accidentally stumbles upon the solution to the murders. The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun also focuses on a young woman. Borrowing her employer's car for a trip to the seashore, the protagonist picks up a hitchhiker who injures her hand. From then on—though she is in an area she has never visited before—she encounters people who recognize her as a murderess. L'été meurtrier (1980; One Deadly Summer) is narrated by four characters and concerns the murder of an Austrian woman by her French neighbors. Hated for unclear reasons, the Austrian woman is derisively nicknamed "Eva Braun"—the name of Adolf Hitler's mistress—and eventually beaten and raped. Before dying from her injuries, she gives birth to a daughter who, years later, avenges her mother's murder. La passion des femmes (1986; The Passion of Women), considered more erotic and less suspenseful than Japrisot's previous novels, concerns five women and a mysterious young man who, as the story begins, lies dying from a gunshot wound. The young man loved and abandoned each woman, using a different name with each one. As the women narrate the stories of their relationships with him, they eventually reveal why he was shot and who did the shooting. Early twentieth-century France is the setting for Un long dimanche de fiançailles (1991; A Very Long Engagement), a story about a young woman investigating the death of a soldier to whom she was engaged. Unlike Japrisot's other novels, A Very Long Engagement is based on an actual historical event, in which a young soldier and four comrades wounded themselves to avoid combat in World War I. Convicted by their commanding officer of treason, they were thrown into the no-man's-land between French and German lines where, presumably, they would be killed in the ensuing battle. In Japrisot's version of events the soldier's bride-to-be travels throughout France after the war, interviewing people who can provide information about her betrothed's death.

Critical Reception

Most critics have applauded Japrisot's clear, concise language; his well-constructed, complex plots; and his ability to make the conventions of the mystery genre plausible. They have also praised his skill at creating realistic, likable characters while evoking and maintaining an aura of suspense. Critics have noted that Japrisot's use of multiple narrators—in The Passion of Women and One Deadly Summer—is unusual in the mystery genre. His often intensely erotic portrayal of human relationships adds, most critics agree, another unique aspect to his oeuvre. As Howard Junker has stated: "Japrisot is obviously a great talent, whom students of the popular novel and of the narrative form in general will want to analyze."